Archive for the ‘Poland’ Category

On Our Way North

Monday, August 3rd, 2009

Leaving Turkey we had quite a push ahead of us. We had to get to Riga, Latvia by Thursday so we would have enough time to sell our car, buy train tickets to Moscow (we had checked online while in Istanbul and found tickets for the equivalent of about $30 and were pleased with that price), and get everything repacked into our much smaller space for hoboing our way across Russia. Because of this we had only 4 days to make the 3000 kilometer drive from the Mediterranean to the Baltic. It was going to be our longest straight drive ever and we were doing it with only two drivers. So, we began.

We crossed into Bulgaria early Sunday (19/07) evening with no difficulties and headed North-West. It was a rather un-exciting evening and we passed it driving over relatively nice roads, listening to some NPR programs we had downloaded in Istanbul, and snacking every once in a while on some bread with Nutella or jam. We slept in the early morning south of the Romanian border in a rather muddy spot just off the road. The next morning, bright and early, we were off heading North. We entered Romania that morning, paid for a Vignette and drove off. We soon realised, however, that the cost of the vignette for Romania had not been worth it. In fact, the roads were terrible. Just a little after we passed the border we got on a road which was alright, but we did have to dodge a few potholes. Then… Matt, who was driving, didn’t manage to dodge one. It hit hard and as we citröened away from it, something was wrong. The car started wobbling a bit and jerking to the right as a loud thumping came from the right-hand rear wheel-well.

Matt held it together well and pulled us off to a good spot along the road. Our right-hand rear tyre had been going a bit bald because it was cambered in pretty badly, so we were rather expecting it to go at some point. When we got out to examine the situation, however, we discovered that the pothole had bent our rim at least an inch out of place at one point, which explained how quickly the air had gone out of the tyre.

We replaced the tyre with the spare (which had a slightly wobbly rim, but not bad), topped up on air at a nearby filling station and made our way up to Bucharest, drove through Bucharest rather quickly, and made the turn North-West and headed for the Carpathians. Driving through the Carpathian mountain range was beautiful. Winding mountain roads didn’t make for quick driving, but they made for many interesting sights. We drove through Transylvania, thankfully avoiding Vlad’s hot-spots especially that evening when we spent the night just outside his territory and departed the next morning, glad to not have been impaled.

Hungary was next on the list. We passed through yet another border, praised the Shengen agreement that allowed us to pass so easily between so many EU nations, bought a vignette and set off to explore Budapest. The twin cities of Buda and Pest and full of beautiful sights, not the least of which is Danube River spanned in several points by scenic bridges. Our first stop was the top of a mountain at the center of the city where a castle and Victory Monument stood guard over the city. We then made our way into the center of the city to a cathedral where the mummified hand of St. Stephen, first king of Hunagry who lived around the turn of the first century, was preserved in a gold and glass reliquary.

After exploring the rest of the city a bit, including the Hungarian parliament building, modeled after the British parliament building in London, we made our way back to the car and left. North again, toward Warsaw where we arrived the next morning, passing through Slovakia in the night (paying for yet another vignette). After just a few hours in Warsaw using the internets. We also had to try to get in touch with David so that he could transfer the rest of our money out of the group’s savings account to our checking account so that we could actually access it. We were unable to make contact with David, but succeeded, eventually, in getting in touch with David’s dad. Relieved, we made our way north yet again, drove through Lithuania, and arrived in Riga after long hours of uneventful travel on Thursday the 23rd, right on schedule.

West to Berlin

Friday, June 12th, 2009

It was a quiet trip for a few hours on that Tuesday (2/6) as we left Auschwitz behind us, we were all engrossed in our own thoughts. Soon, our life was back to normal. Polish music radio was blaring from the speakers, we were talking about what we were going to cook for lunch and what our plans were for picking Dan up in Berlin, etc., etc.

We slept that night in the car–it’s easier to sleep in a car with only 3 people we discovered–at a rest stop about 1 hour outside of Berlin. The next morning we were up and going pretty early, heading into Berlin where we parked across the street from the Deutsche Opera Berlin and began the walk down town. We had parked quite a distance from center city to save money–and we did! Parking for €1 an hour can’t be beat!

We stopped at a Kaiser and picked up some tomatoes and some cheap Gouda cheese. We were about to check out when Matt spotted some delicious-looking chocolate pudding cups for 19¢ each! We bought four and, later that day with some spoons we had requested at McDonalds (Thank you McDonalds!) enjoyed them immensely. They seemed to be made with real chocolate and real cream!

We left the store and, after another 20 minutes or so of walking, stopped at a Gravis/Apple store to get some internet to check for email from Dan giving his exact arrival time and also to check prices for a power cable for my Mac.

My power cable had exploded all over Matt the day before* leaving me with a computer that, no matter how cool it looks, how good its operating system, and how high its technical specs, did me no good. We checked power cables at the Gravis store. €89. Not gonna work. So we tried a last-ditch effort to get in touch with my family and Dan and get them to find my backup power cord (which I had unfortunately forgotten to bring with me).

I emailed my family with a plea and then called Dan who said he was about to leave but he would see what he could do. Then, we waited and, since there wasn’t anything else we could do, we went and explored Berlin. We walked through the main park south to see if we could find an Aldi somewhere. No one knew were one was and it took us about an hour and a half to find one. During that time we did find some free oranges and the world-famous Berlin Zoo (home of Knut, the captive-born polar bear!).

We ate lunch outside a convention center near the Zoo while the rain poured down for half an hour. We also saw “The Broken Tooth,” a church almost completely destroyed by the Allies during the bombing of Berlin, leaving only the church spire, broken off at the top.

Then we walked back into the park emerging at a Burger King right near the Column of Victory topped with a statue made with melted cannons of the defeated French after one of the Prussian victories during the Franco-Prussian wars. It had begun to rain and we holed up in one of the underground pedestrian tunnels that leads to the column where Matt and David had a jam session with their echoes.

When the rain let up a bit we left and headed east toward the Brandenburg Gate, walking again through the park. We popped out this time to be greeted by the muzzles of two large Russian tanks. Thankfully they were just part of the Russian Soldiers’ Memorial, remembering the thousands of Russian soldiers killed during their drive to Berlin. Oddly the day before we had followed much the same route the Russians had followed from Poland to Berlin, we just did it much faster and with fewer casualties.

We then walked to the Brandenburg Gate, followed the path of the Wall, and saw the Reichstag. Then we headed south through the park emerging at the Homosexual Memorial across from the Holocaust Memorial and headed south to Potsdam Platz where we saw the magnificent Sony Center. It was mostly closed except for the restaurants serving extremely expensive food, so we went back to our car and cooked some of our extremely inexpensive, and likely almost as delicious, food.

We slept that night at another rest stop about 15 minutes outside of Berlin in the direction of Leipzig.

The next day (3/6) we went back into town, found a parking spot for just as cheap but a bit further away from town this time, stopped at the Gravis store to check our email (nothing from Dan or my family about the power cord. We were hoping that meant it was on its way) and went to the Zoo. It was a bit expensive to get into the zoo (€12 pp) but for me at least it was worth it. They have the most species of animals of any zoon in the world and, while it is more cramped than the Columbus Zoo, being in the middle of the city, very good exhibits. We spent about 6 hours there and, as far as we knew, were the last ones out that evening.

We picked up Dan at 2115 that evening, walked the Wall, checked out the Brandeburg Gate all lit up and went and saw the Reichstag. Then, back to the same rest stop for the night.

Daniel R. Ziegler

* OK, so, the cord got frayed inside the sheath so it heated up and it broke through the plastic and ceased conducting power. Matt wasn’t even slightly burned or electrocuted. Boring. But it did look like it had exploded, and Matt was using it during the time that this all took place. Isn’t it more exciting to say it exploded all over Matt?


Thursday, June 11th, 2009

I [david] woke up Tuesday morning a bit before 6:00 in the morning and could not get back to sleep, so I decided to walk around the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp in the early morning as a slight fog still shrouded the camp. On my walk I fully realized how immense the camp was and how many people would live here at one time…and most of those shipped here were sent straight to the gas chamber. Due to the early hour at which I was walking around the camp there was no one inside, allowing me to try to imagine what the camp looked like in 1944. I imagined smoke billowing out of the crematoriums and hanging over the entire camp and the stench of burning bodies that would accompany this sight. I saw another train that was being unloaded: families being separated, a three year-old girl being taken from her mother for a “shower” from which the young girl would never return… the husband and wife being put in separate lines, the man will work, the woman will be gassed like their daughter…their luggage that they packed for their journey is unloaded from the train, but they will not ever see it again; little do they know that their luggage will outlive them by many, many years. I imagine a young boy—one kept alive for medical experimentation—seeing his mother through a fence… their eyes meet and they take one step towards one another… and are both beaten severely for it. Everywhere there is hate. As I looked at the camp, I imagined I could hear the word “hate” audibly, very quietly at first, but it started to crescendo. It sounded like a ringing bell getting louder and louder, “hate, Hate, HATE, HATE, HATE” and soon it was so loud my ears were ringing. There was no escaping it. So much hate… so much pain. Then, all of a sudden, like a jet breaking the sound barrier, there was a loud bang and extreme calm. I realized the bang was when the Soviets captured the camp, stopping the mass murders, and now the camp is extremely calm. There was no one in the camp… it was completely quiet… it was even peaceful in an eerie way.

As I walked around the camp deep in thought I would suddenly be passed by a car. No one even glanced at the camp. It is just a normal part of life for them. They don’t even think about it or what went on there just sixty-five years ago. There was a farmer working in his field next to the camp. What does he think when he is sitting in his tractor driving slowly right toward the barbed wire? An old man glides by on a bicycle… that man was old enough to be alive during World War II but he did not even look at the camp. Have they become jaded to it? Do they try to block out the memory? I know that it was not the Polish people that set up the camp, but has it really become so much a part of daily life that it has lost all significance?
Then, later in my walk, I realized that my own mind had wondered and I was no longer thinking about Auschwitz or the Holocaust. I was walking right along the barbed wire, but I could not even keep my mind on the camp. I am just as bad as those who drive by without so much of a thought about the pain. No, I am worse. They see it every day; I have seen it once, and already my mind was thinking about other matters.

david miller

Visiting a Machine

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

One element that sobered me about Auschwitz was the mass production of death. This was a well-oiled factory that churned out 1.5 million corpses. We’re talking efficiency on an unthinkable level. A phrase that stood out for me was “human liquidation.” The final solution liquidized a huge human population like a commodity, partially for its assets in manpower but generally merely to seemingly streamline the German population but disposing of those thought unfit. The unfit were, of course, humans with eternal souls.

The Third Reich assembled these people from across its occupied territory and generally funneled them through various concentration camps until their final destination behind gates of one of the three Auschwitz camps. Of the two standing camps, both have on their gates the sick slogan “Arbeit Macht Frei” (Work [Will Set You] Free). That this last false promise of hope, the factory began disassembling its victims with assembly line precision and heartlessness.

First, it stripped them of their possessions. At the smaller of the two camps, Konzentrationslager Auschwitz I, we walked past huge displays of suitcases, crutches, shoes, glasses, razors for shaving, shawls, pounds upon pounds of women’s hair, and even a few dolls, all meticulously confiscated in the camp’s machine. Personally, I struggled to remember that these were personal belongs of one living, breathing humans. They looked alien, even synthetic, behind their glass cases in the halogen lighting. Yet they were once owned by very real people, most of whom had no idea what the deportations would involve, many packed for normal life. There were preserved ticket stubs purchased by Italian Jews told Auschwitz was a Jewish settlement safe from the escalating tensions. They even bought tracts of nonexistent land to begin a new life. Instead, it have them either a single prison uniform, inadequate rations, and backbreaking labor, or the last “shower” of their lives. Between 70 and 75% of all those deposited at Auschwitz received the latter.

The Auschwitz machine also methodically stripped its prisoners of their rights and their human dignity. The reconstructed cabins at the larger Auschwitz II-Birkenau camp were not there to house the prisoners but merely to collect them. When we parked outside the camp’s main gate and slept there that night I tried to imagine the feelings of despair once felt by those on the other side of the electrified barbed wire. I failed miserably. If they were not sent directly to the gas chambers after exiting the trains, a small minority spent their days in inhuman conditions. Occasionally SS officers would have them transport huge piles of sand back and forth just for spite. They were programmed to view the prisoners as animals deserving this treatment. A pockmarked wall marked the many of these lives were ended if they refused to forfeit their humanity. Perhaps my life would have ended there if I had been born a European Jew in 1920.

When we toured the Birkenau barracks, I was struck by how barbaric the buildings would have been, especially after a new shipment of detainees arrived, cramming up to 3,000 people into buildings built for 500 max. One barrack housed young women, stuffing up to seventeen into each six foot wide bunk. They would have been piled on top of each other. Not that the camp was intended to collect people; it was intended as the final stop for the influx of Jews and the socially unacceptable into the Nazi industrial system. Train arrives full of cold, freightened people. Train departs empty. Workers mechanically separate the cargo, only 20-25%, the most healthy and fit, are allowed to live. The others, deemed unfit, were disposed of. Merely disposed of. The only biproducts were smoke from the crematoriums’ chimneys and ashes that still grey a pool near the Birkenau memorial. The efficiency of murdering an estimated 1.5 million was sickening; the last stop in Hitler’s diabolical machine to dehumanize and eliminate.


Light in the Darkness

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

Just the name of Auschwitz can silence a pleasant conversation, especially among people who have visited it. The place has an aura of darkness and walking through it we were exposed time after time to stories of the absolute horrors humans beings visited on other human beings. To experience a place like this–especially as we did for an entire night outside Auschwitz-Birkenau then a full day in Auschwitz I and II–can block from your mind any glimmer of good.

But there was good in Auschwitz. From the very start of the camp as a containment facility for Polish dissidents, the local Poles from the town of Oświęcim–where Konzentrationslager Auschwitz was located–risked their lives for the sake of the prisioners. The only successful escapes were executed with the help of locals who risked death or, worse, becoming Auschwitz inmates themselves. As the camp grew and Auschwitz II (Birkenau) and III (Monowitz) were founded, the entire Polish population of Oświęcim was relocated to an area not far away and their homes were used as the barracks and houses of the SS and Gestapo who ran the camps.

Gestapo and SS could not stop the Poles from giving what assistance they could to the prisoners. Prisoners would arrive at their work stations to find bread and fruit hidden amongst the rocks. Poles dropped packages of food and medicine just in front of columns of marching inmates for them to use. It’s impossible to estimate how many lives were saved thanks to Polish assistance, but simply the fact that word got out to the Polish government-in-exile in London about the camps and, through them, to the world meant that the Allies were that much quicker in their liberation of the camp.

Even though fewer than 200 inmates escaped, the lives of those inside were made ever so slightly more bearable by the assistance of the good people on the outside. These heroes aren’t often talked about–the sheer scale of the operation in Auschwitz overshadows their meager victories–but the fact that there were some, even just a few, who cared enough to risk their lives for good means that, in the eternal sense, the accomplishments of the Polish citizens of Oświęcim far eclipses the numerically larger accomplishments of the Auschwitz camps. The story of their fight against insurmountable darkness deserves to be told every time the name “Auschwitz” is mentioned.

Daniel R Ziegler

Driving and Bread in Eastern Europe

Wednesday, June 10th, 2009

We left Latvia and crossed into Lithuania early in the morning of June 1, and drove to southern Lithuania. I (david) was unable to observe much about Lithuanian culture or scenery due to the fact that I was sleeping the entire time (plus the wee hours of the morning are do not give good representations of either, even if I had been awake). Dan pulled into a rest stop at 3:30 and we stayed stationary until a little after 9:00, at which point I drove as the others continued to sleep. The new “major” roads in both Latvia and Lithuania (the “major” road in northern Latvia that I talked about in my last post was not new) are still only two-lane highways, but they are treated as three-lane highways. These new roads are built with extremely wide shoulders, and slow cars will pull over to the side of the shoulder—almost completely to the right of the outside line—but continue driving at the same speed. The faster car then moves slightly to the left—just hanging over the center line—and moves around the car. If there are any on-coming cars, then they move over the outside line on their side as well, just to give plenty of room. The system really worked quite well, and I think that the road was wide enough for four cars to travel on it abreast, but I never saw it attempted.

We crossed into Poland and the new, wide roads were replaced with curvy, semi-truck laden, town strewn roads. It took me almost five hours to progress 200 miles in Poland. This was the antithesis of traveling on Poland’s next door neighbor Germany’s roads: the autobahn allows you to cut through Germany quickly and cleanly, like a knife. Using this comparison, driving in Poland felt like we were bludgeoning our way through the country. Having a left-hand drive in right-hand drive Europe is most inconvenient when trying to pass another vehicle; you are unable to see if there is an oncoming car until you are well into the other lane. Therefore, the person sitting in the passenger seat needs to pay attention and tell you when it is ok to pass. Matt would give me a thumbs-up signal to let me know when it was safe to pass a semi.

We found a cheap supermarket (Tesco) on the outskirts of Warsaw, so we stopped to replenish our food supply. Upon entering the store, we quickly realized that food would be extremely cheap, and the best deals were to be had on bread. We picked up bunches of really cheap breads—three types of smaller “bun sized” items that we used for making sandwiches, a big piece of braided sweet bread that was absolutely fantastic, and two giant loaves of regular bread. We also loaded up on pasta and other useful, healthy foods before continuing on our way.

Although Warsaw is Poland’s capital, it apparently does not have any interstate (called motorways in Europe because they are not connecting states like back home) running either around or through the city, so we were forced to crawl through the entire length of the city. Finally south of Warsaw we got on a four lane highway and were able to make better time down to Oswiecim—the city that houses the Auschwitz death camps. Altogether it took almost 10½ hours of driving time to get from where we spent the night in southern Lithuania to Auschwitz in southern Poland.

We parked outside of the Auschwitz-Birkenau camp and walked to the gate through which the train passed—and was made famous by appearing in Schindler’s List. As we stood by the gate, a group of young Orthodox Jews passed out of the complex singing a melancholy song. I had to wonder what they thought and felt as they were inside knowing that over one million of their fellow people were slain at this site only sixty-five years ago.

We decided to sleep in the car in the parking lot directly across from the Birkenau camp and made supper which consisted of sticky noodles which were almost impossible to clean off of the pot, so we filled the pot with water and let it sit out overnight. We put it on the lid of a metal trash can so we would not forget it when we woke up the next morning…except the next morning the pot was gone. We had been warned that there were a lot of thieves in Poland, but a cooking pot? That seemed unlikely. We then noticed that there was a new trash bag in the can and suddenly we knew what happened. The person who cleans up the parking lot must have thought that we wanted to throw the pot away, but it wouldn’t fit into the trash can so we simply left it on top (she must have ignored the fact that it was filled with water). I had already looked in the dumpster that was in the parking lot and did not see it, but we then decided that the clean-up lady would have put it in the trash bag before throwing it away. Dan went to check the trash bags in the dumpster and about five minutes later came back triumphantly holding the pot like he had just won it as a prize. We were all so relieved. The pot expands our culinary options exponentially and I already can hardly imagine making meals without it. (Don’t worry we did give the pot a vigorous cleaning before we used it again).

david miller